This Week in History


No habla español! The Spanish Lake Retreat

For the week of Monday March 26, 2007

On March 28, 1795, the Spanish garrison at Friendly Cove, British Columbia, boarded their ships and departed, ending Spain’s exploration of the Pacific Northwest. In the late 18th century, Spanish authorities had decided to expand northwards from Mexico to assert their sovereignty over the Pacific Basin, otherwise known as the Spanish Lake.

Maquinna and Kelekum clasp hands
© Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington

In 1774, Juan Perez explored the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island’s west coast, trading with the Haida and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth first peoples for sea otter and other furs. The next year, the Quadra-Hezeta expedition explored as far north as Alaska. The 1779 Arteaga-Quadra mission to Nueva Galicia (Pacific Northwest) mapped major portions of the coast and instigated extensive contacts with the indigenous peoples. Exploration ceased until 1788, when the French explorer La Pérouse reported permanent Russian settlements and numerous British and American trading vessels along the Pacific Northwest. Spain then resolved to establish a permanent trading fort on Vancouver Island to re-assert Spanish sovereignty.

Captain de la Bodega y Quadra, Spanish delegate, Nootka Bay Convention
© Museo Naval, Madrid
In 1789, Spanish forces under Martinez began building fortifications at Friendly Cove (Nootka Sound) and on nearby San Miguel Island. Confrontations with British and American traders ensued, culminating when the British trading vessel Argonaut refused to recognize Spanish sovereignty and allow their ship to be inspected. The ship’s captain was arrested and his ship seized along with several other vessels. Nootka leader Kelekum criticised these actions, provoking an incident in which he was killed, causing the Nuu-Chah-Nulth chief Maquinna and his people to temporarily abandon the inlet.

Captain George Vancouver, British delegate, Nootka Bay Convention
© National Portrait Gallery, NPG503
War was averted over the “Nootka Sound Controversy” when Spain and Britain signed the first of three Nootka Sound Conventions in October 1790, opening the region to all nations wishing to trade with the indigenous peoples. However, Spain kept their northern settlement intact and continued their explorations with the now famous Malaspina expedition of 1791, and the Caamano and Galiano-Valdes voyages of 1792.

The conventions led to better relations between the two nations and ultimately, with the First Peoples. For several months each year, the Spanish and British worked together to chart the network of channels and islands in the area, sharing all their findings. With the third Nootka Convention of January 1794, Spain and Britain agreed to remove all permanent settlements. In 1795, the Spanish departed Nootka Sound, ending forever Spanish involvement on Canada’s Northwest Coast. The Last Spanish Exploration was designated a National Historic Event in 1927.

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